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November 27, 2006

Lowered Expectations

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Years ago, Fox’s MAD TV featured a skit with this article’s title. The skit was centered on a dating service where the applicants were something less than beauty queens and handsome princes.

In fact, the introduction to the skit featured a heavyset couple stumbling along a path, with the gent reaching around to scratch his posterior, as they strode happily off into the sunset.

Much has been spoken and written about the opportunities and challenges facing Governor-elect Martin O’Malley. It seems unfair to borrow the title of Charles Dickens’ classic novel of pre-Victorian England to suggest overly optimistic expectations, although everyone else seems to be doing so.

Governor-elect O’Malley ran for office as a progressive, using lofty rhetoric to lift the spirits of Maryland voters beyond the dull and mundane language of state politics. I am often reminded of President John F. Kennedy when I hear Mr. O’Malley speak. He understands and masters creating visuals in his use of the language to express an idea.

Sprinkled throughout the last several years have been a series of promises that provide some insight into the governor-elect’s upcoming agenda. The promises are notable for what they contain and for what they lack.

The Promises:

Open Space

These same environmental advocates campaigned aggressively against Governor Ehrlich on the basis that he did not do "enough" to preserve land from development pressure, citing his diversion of funding from preservation programs to balance the state budget. Governor-elect O’Malley is expected to do much better by the smart growth crowd.

The Challenges:

The same out-year structural deficit that haunted Governor Ehrlich will hover over the new governor as he takes his oath on the steps of the nation’s oldest active state capitol on January 17. The $1.6 billion dollar welcome gift left by the departing Republican governor will ease the first year of the new Democrat Administration, but the following three years appear to be bleak and foreboding.

Governor-elect O’Malley has an extended honeymoon waiting, along with a much friendlier legislature. Not friendly enough to pass a slots bill, though. House Speaker Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel), emboldened by his resounding victory statewide, appears as adamant about defeating slots as he did during the Ehrlich years.

I’m sure Mr. O’Malley would love to fall back on several hundred million in slots revenue to pad his budgets against the impending shortfall, but not if Speaker Busch has his way (and he will).

When faced with tough choices in Baltimore, Mayor O’Malley raised taxes and revenues to cover his promises and commitments. Every newly elected official wants to shower his base of support with favor, and favor means money. At the same time, new governors want to lay out a bold and aggressive agenda, something to inspire the masses to embrace the chief executive’s vision.

That’ll be tough to do without revenue; tougher still with a recalcitrant House firmly against slot machines, and toughest of all with a small but vocal minority in the House and Senate reminding Maryland voters that Bob Ehrlich avoided broad-based tax increases for four years.

The progressives want a bold policy agenda from Governor-elect O’Malley. But without the revenue to pay for it, we may all have to adopt lowered expectations!

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